Let Me Tell You a Story: Increasing Recall of Environmental Outreach

This post is the second in a three-part series summarizing our presentation on messaging at this year’s California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) conference: “Not Just the Facts, Ma’am: Getting Your Message to Matter.” 


Story_ppt_ssWhich is more powerful: presenting environmental facts and a call to action in a bullet-point list, or embedding them in a narrative? As you may have guessed, the latter! Stories help us understand cause and effect and how things fit together. They also let us access emotions, making the message more memorable.

Storytelling has been part of the human experience for a very long time—just think of the narratives depicted in prehistoric cave paintings. The human brain has evolved to work in narrative structures; it’s how we make sense of the world.

To understand what makes storytelling so effective, let’s look at what happens in the brain. When we absorb facts, the brain gets activated in the areas responsible for language recognition and decoding words into meaning. However, when we listen to a narrative, additional areas in the brain show activity: those responsible for directing physical motion and tracking sensations. For example, when we hear metaphors like “he had leathery hands,” the brain’s sensory cortex — which perceives texture through touch — is stimulated. And the more parts of our brains are engaged, the better our attention and recall.

How can we use these insights in environmental outreach work? There are many ways to weave in narratives. For example, use positive stories about real people to promote a behavior. It may take a bit of research to find the right “hero” for your story, but you can’t beat the persuasive value (and norming effect!) of a local couple sharing their enthusiasm about, say, cooking with leftovers, along with tips in their own words and a photo showing them having fun in the kitchen while reducing waste.

If you’re dealing with frequent barriers to practices you’re trying to promote, try a “success story” of somebody who has overcome these challenges. Their authentic voice and the emotional connection their story can make with your audience will be more effective than any list of facts.

The complete CRRA presentation can be viewed here.

Once More, with Feeling: Incorporating Emotion in Environmental Outreach

This post is the first in a three-part series summarizing our presentation on messaging at this year’s California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) conference: “Not Just the Facts, Ma’am: Getting Your Message to Matter.” 

sitting brain
People are not just brains on a chair – they respond to emotional appeal
Environmental outreach depends on getting the facts about pollution, recycling, and other eco-challenges to the public in order to encourage more sustainable behaviors. But over and over, we see that facts alone don’t change public behavior. We have to make our messages matter and be memorable. To do this, we recommend three key strategies.
Our first strategy: appeal to the whole person by using emotion. People are not just brains sitting on a chair, motivated by facts and data. Getting people to laugh, cry, sigh or shake their heads in wonder or disgust is what makes a message stick. Businesses have known this for ages. Think about it: Coca-Cola doesn’t focus on telling you exactly what’s in their bottles of acidic sugar water. No! They work to associate their product with emotions of joy, happiness, or belonging, with slogans like “Share a Coke and a Smile” or “Coke Adds Life” or…well, you get the picture.
Emotional appeals do not have to be shocking to work. When we need to convince others to act, it is an invitation to display passion, instill a sense of immediacy or threat, or to invite people to be part of something…there are many emotional appeals to choose from.  See examples of emotional appeals in videos, display ads, and more, in the complete presentation, below.
So the next time you are planning an outreach campaign, consider how to include an emotional appeal. Far from being fluffy or silly, that emotional appeal will make your message more likely to stick.
The complete CRRA presentation can be viewed here.